The Huskers went through their customary post-practice shooting routine on Thursday morning on the court at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
At one point, Fred Hoiberg pulled sophomore point guard Cam Mack aside to offer him some advice. After knocking down two 3-pointers in the season-opener, Mack shot 0-of-6 from deep against Southern Utah.
“The biggest thing that I was working with with Cam was his footwork and his rhythm into his shot and trying to work with his body position as well,” Hoiberg said. “Cam’s a guy that has a little bit of a natural lean in his shot; I don’t think we’re going to take that all away, but it’s trying to have him finish with balance. It’s what I think is really important; you see the release, but do your work early in your shot prep and really get your footwork and your balance right, and then get your tempo right.
“Guys have a tendency to get a little quick. I was a guy that struggled with his shot on numerous occasions. Human nature is get as close as you can to that rim and you’re not shooting it and trusting it and finishing with a good, high release point. So just really trying to get confidence.
Through two games, the Huskers have shot 11-of-52 (21.2%) from 3, good for 343rd in the country (there are 353 Division I schools). Matej Kavas is 2-of-5, Thorir Thorbjarnarson is 1-of-2 and everybody else is shooting under 25%.
“I give our guys a lot of credit: they’re really trying to get in here and work at it, most of them are coming back at night to get in extra shooting sessions,” Hoiberg said. “It’s something where if we make shots, especially in the last game we have a very good chance of having a win right now. But it didn’t happen and you just get back to work. That’s the only thing that can fix it is getting back in that gym and seeing that thing go in the hole and trying to gain some confidence … We’ve been shooting a ton this week all over the floor and hopefully we come out and take the lid off it early and have a good shooting game.”
Hoiberg said he saw a good deal of improvement from the opener against UC Riverside (a 66-47 loss) to game two against Southern Utah (a 79-78 loss in overtime), but the Huskers are still sitting at 0-2.
“I thought there were a lot of positives that we could take out of the last game,” Hoiberg said. “We got up 14 on them on a couple different occasions. I was really pleased with the way we were playing and getting out and playing with great pace. Then the game slowed down and they climbed back in it. We struggled to make shots and they kept coming at us. I thought our resiliency was pretty good; the fact that we weren’t making shots, to have a chance late in that game, and Jervay [Green] stepping up and making the big 3 to continue the game. There were a lot of things that were positive, but certainly plenty to continue to work on. That’s what we’ve tried to focus on the last couple days and hopefully it carries over to the game tomorrow night.”
No individual showed more progress from game one to game two than freshman forward Kevin Cross. He fired up 10 shots in 14 minutes against UC Riverside, converting just one of them. Against Southern Utah, he led the team with 19 points on 8-of-15 shooting while playing 36 minutes.
“I feel like the second game was kind of smooth,” Cross said. “The first one I kind of rushed shots, didn’t get in the flow of the game.”
In the first game, the Highlanders left their center planted at the rim and gave Cross plenty of space to work with, and he couldn't make them play. In game two, the Thunderbirds spent most of the game in a zone, leaving space in the middle of the floor and Cross was the only Husker who really managed to take advantage of it.
“Kevin’s been good,” Hoiberg said. “I love the way he continued to attack, especially after a tough first night where he was 1-for-10. To continue to go out there and play with that kind of confidence says a lot about Kevin. He’s got a very good skill set; that’s what we loved about him when we were going through the recruiting process. He’s just one of those guys at his position who can bring the big away from the basket if he can make shots and make plays. We isolated him up top the last possession of the first half and he went in there and got a basket for us. Kevin does a lot of things for us.”
In addition to what he’s doing offensively, Cross is also adjusting to defending true posts, something he wasn’t really asked to do in high school.
“He’s doing a good job,” Hoiberg said. “He’s going to be battling bigger, strong guys all year. I don’t think he’s gotten burned down there too much against bigs. When he as the ability and the skill set to bring the big away form the basket, that should open things up, especially when we start making shots. I’ve been really pleased with Kevin. As an 18-year-old freshman coming in here, he certainly isn’t backing down from anything.”
The Huskers have had five days to work on things after losing to Southern Utah on Saturday and Hoiberg said the practices this week have been good.
“It was a good opportunity for us to get back with several consecutive practices and we pushed them hard,” Hoiberg said. “We went at it, especially the last two days, we really got out and competed. We just tried to go out there, get back to basics; try to go out there with execution, get good quality defensive possessions. We’ve had some, and then we’ve also had some where we’ve had a great possession and didn’t figure it off with a rebound.”
On Friday night, the Huskers will get another crack at securing their first win under Hoiberg when South Dakota State comes to town. The Jackrabbits are 31 and coming off their first loss, an 84-66 defeat at USC in a game that was closer than the final score indicates.
“This is a team we’re facing tomorrow that has good length and it’s a team that had USC on the ropes,” Hoiberg said. “You don’t see it very often, but USC had a seven-point possession late in that game to push it I think from six to 13. But they came all the way back and took a lead on USC on the road in the second half. This is a team that’s been in the tournament I think five of the last eight years, they’ve won their league the last three years and there are a lot of those players back that know what they’re doing out there. Hopefully we come out with a great effort early and get the pace established where we want it.”
South Dakota State lost its top four scorers and its head coach from last year’s 24-win NIT qualifier, but the Jackrabbits maintained some continuity by promoting assistant Eric Henderson to head coach when TJ Otzelberger left to take the UNLV job.
Junior college transfer Doug Wilson, a 6-foot-7 forward, is leading the way for the Jackrabbits with 19.5 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting 57.6% from the field. Another junior college transfer, Brandon Key, is running the point at 5-foot-10 and is putting up 11.8 points and 4.0 assists per game, but he’s also turning the ball over four times per game and is shooting 27.3% from 3.
The South Dakota State roster features a pair of native Nebraskans in 6-foot-6 guard Baylor Scheierman out of Aurora and 6-foot-7 wing David Wingett out of Winnebago. Scheierman, an AAU teammate of Nebraska freshman Akol Arop, is chipping in 8.8 points and 63 rebounds off the bench while Wingett, a transfer from Memphis, is averaging 8.3 points while shooting 6-of-13 from 3.
Tipoff for Friday’s game at Pinnacle Bank Arena is set for 8 p.m. on BTN.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.